GOP presidential primary sprawls beyond a Trump-DeSantis clash

The race to be the next Republican presidential nominee will hit a new gear this week, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expected to officially launch his much anticipated campaign.

But what’s long been framed as a battle between Donald Trump and DeSantis, Trump’s one-time ally, appears on the verge of sprawling into a crowded contest.

At least one other contender is expected to formally declare a candidacy this week: Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina filed paperwork Friday to establish a campaign after months of positioning himself for a run, and he’s set to hold his official launch on Monday. A half-dozen or more could soon join the fray.

Sen. Tim Scott speaks during a town hall in in Manchester, N.H. (Charles Krupa / AP file)

Sen. Tim Scott speaks during a town hall in in Manchester, N.H. (Charles Krupa / AP file)

Allies of former Vice President Mike Pence last week set up a super PAC to promote his potential White House bid. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas — two Republicans who have not been shy about criticizing Trump — have telegraphed that they soon could enter the race. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another past Trump ally who has since turned on the former president, has been making noise about a run as well.

Meanwhile, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has sent mixed signals about his intentions, released a video last week that called for “a new era of American values.” In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum acknowledged that he was thinking “about 2024.”

This sudden burst of activity reflects several realities for the early stages of the GOP contest. The idea of renominating Trump, who according to polls is far and away the front-runner, does not sit well with a sizable segment of the party. And DeSantis, despite being presumed as the top Trump alternative, has failed to strengthen his position in the lead-up to his announcement, prompting others to ponder campaigns.

“The additional conservative names will be a welcome sight to levelheaded Republicans like myself,” said former Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who has been critical of Trump. “The unfortunate reality is the new names won’t make a dent in Trump’s current numbers. Too many Republicans are obsessed with the loudest and angriest voice in the room instead of the most articulate voice in the room. I’m hoping that obsession changes before it’s too late.”

Trump allies believe a crowded field works to the former president’s benefit.

One Trump-aligned operative messaged NBC News a screenshot of the RealClearPolitics average of several polls showing Trump growing his lead in recent weeks.

“I mean, it gets real,” this person said of the pending expansion of the field. “But functionally, we’re doing our thing while everyone else [competes] for table scraps.”

Another Trump ally called the emergence of potential new candidates like Scott, Christie and Burgum “the biggest story of the campaign so far,” predicting it would prevent DeSantis from hitting his stride.

“If I’m DeSantis, this is the hell scenario,” the Trump ally said. “Remember, the conventional wisdom from January and February was, ‘Oh, actually this is going to be a really small field. The money has been choked off.’ And it’s very clear, it ain’t gonna be a small field now.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

Gov. Ron DeSantis (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

Erin Perrine, a spokesperson for Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC, rejected the notion that a larger field would hurt the governor.

“Gov. DeSantis isn’t even a candidate, and this Republican primary is already a two-man race,” Perrine said. “There is growing momentum behind Gov. DeSantis across the country — as we’ve seen at his recent visits to Iowa … and New Hampshire.”

Until now, the official GOP field had been relatively narrow. Trump launched his campaign last fall, shortly after the 2022 midterms. The most visible of the other announced candidates include former Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a political newcomer with a knack for attracting media attention.

Conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, who failed in his 2021 effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and wealthy businessman Perry Johnson, who was disqualified from Michigan’s GOP gubernatorial primary last year because he did not collect enough valid signatures, are also running.

Former Gov. Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign rally in Greer, S.C. (Meg Kinnard / AP file)

Former Gov. Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign rally in Greer, S.C. (Meg Kinnard / AP file)

DeSantis and his allies are expected to mount a well-funded push. He has been meeting with donors in Florida ahead of his launch and had nearly $86 million in his state campaign account at the end of April. DeSantis cannot spend that money directly on a presidential campaign. But the funds could be transferred to supportive super PACs, including Never Back Down, which has taken the lead in promoting DeSantis for president.

“The energy for America’s governor to be the next president is overflowing,” Perrine said. “Americans are hopeful and excited for Gov. DeSantis to get in the race because they want to move past the culture of losing and leaders of our past.”

DeSantis has offered only mild criticism of Trump, instead speaking more abstractly about a GOP “culture of losing” — the same phrase Perrine used — that scans as an implicit allusion to the party’s losses under Trump’s heavy influence in 2018, 2020 and 2022. Trump, for his part, has for months been treating DeSantis as if he were already a candidate, attacking him relentlessly on social media and through his campaign staff and surrogates. More than half the members of Florida’s U.S. House delegation, of which DeSantis was once a member, have endorsed Trump.

“Ron DeSantis’ failed shadow campaign has opened the floodgates for career politicians looking to seize an opportunity to raise their profile ahead of the 2028 race,” Taylor Budowich, CEO of the Trump-aligned MAGA Inc., said Friday in a response to Scott’s campaign filing. “Tim Scott’s entrance, and aggressive media purchase, doesn’t only kneecap DeSantis, but Scott sees the same thing as Youngkin, Sununu, Burgum, Christie and others: the path to second place is wide open.”

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